Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Black lagers in Slovenia

While teaching at a European-funded workshop in Ljubljana in late February (the surprisingly frisky façade of the Slovenian House of Parliament shown right), I was generally less than impressed by the ability of that city to cater for any food tastes other than sausages and creamy steaks, but made up for it by trying a handful of the local dark lagers. I didn't take detailed tasting notes of any of them (I had enough to keep in mind with the half-dozen project ideas that were flying around), but some of my impressions and comparisons of the main drinks remain, and were mostly positive.

The apparently more classy (or at least expensive) of the local beers I tried was Laško, which comes both in regular (blonde) and "temno" (dark) varieties on most bar menus. I of course opted for several half-liters of the Laško Temno (shown in bottle, left, and glass, below right). This was much more flavoursome than the typical black Czech or Japanese lager you can find here (but not as brutally coffee-caramel-chewy as the Stolichno Bock I tried in Sofia last year!), a bit smoky and with a hint of savory herbs, perhaps cumin or some mellow alium vegetable stewed with a touch of balsamic vinegar to get it nice and crunchy. There must have been a fair bit of unfermented sugar, and perhaps a hint of methylic alcohol, in here too, considering the jackhammer of a hangover even a small amount was capable of delivering!

Although a dedicated real ale drinker, part of me is very happy to find more traditional, lagered beer styles in Eastern Europe, especially the parts historically influenced by Germany and Austria, where brewing under the constraints of Bavarian-style purity laws led to creative blends of hop and yeast, sharp, clean favours with enough variety to keep even a fruit-loving Belgian happy. Laško provided a lovely example of this practice in Slovenia; the blonde variety was as tasty as some of the best Czech pilsners, and the Temno both looked, smelled and tasted good enough to keep me from missing British-style ales for a few days.

The other local beer that we sampled on another evening (but I didn't think to photograph), was the Union Temno, a slightly cheaper but still pleasant black lager served in an "English pub" down by the river. Union is much smokier than the Laško (or indeed than the almost insipid-in-comparison Urquell Black that I had midway through the evening), almost like a roasted barley frappé sweetened with molasses, dark and chewy while being cold and refreshing. There's nothing like the weight or bitterness of a stout, and even though it's as sweet as a winter porter, it's unmistakably a chilled, fizzy lager. Even on a cold night, it was very pleasant to drink a handful of large glasses of this beer in a noisy bar while debating the qualities of Balkan and Thracian scripts on ancient inscriptions. If I could figure out how to get something more interesting to eat than grilled vegetables, I could get used to drinking Slovenian beers.

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